The power of Oprah has seen numerous novels, memoirs and self-help guides go from moderate hits to commercial sensations, making millions and inspiring droves of primarily female readers. Winfrey’s endorsement was the golden touch many publishers hoped for, but not even they could have expected the euphoria that followed her praising of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, a memoir of self-discovery that doubled as a wish-fulfilment fantasy for many readers of a certain age. Gilbert’s worldwide trip of indulgence and inner peace fit perfectly with the Oprah show’s mantra of “Live your best life” and led to everything from luxury tours of the locations in her memoir to a line of yoga mats.
On the surface, Cheryl Strayed’s own memoir Wild feels like the perfect Oprah fit in the manner of Gilbert’s book – it’s a personal story involving a long journey to help heal the scars left behind partially from a broken marriage. It’s no surprise that Winfrey chose the memoir as her first book club choice when it returned after the end of her show, and the film is already seen as an Oscar favourite for its star and producer Reese Witherspoon. The comparisons between both women and their stories seemed inevitable, partly because of surface similarities and the Oprah seal of approval but also because it’s easy and lazy to do so. You can practically hear Jonathan Franzen sneering at them.
Wild, however, is a far different breed of memoir, and one that surpasses Eat Pray Love on almost every level. Dismissing all such stories as ‘chick-lit’ is bad enough without even getting into the insulting false equivalences that render all women’s stories as identical.
Strayed’s journey may, on the surface, seem like an easy to sell path to enlightenment in the vein of Gilbert’s, but it’s in reality a far rawer experience. Driven to a new low by her mother’s death, Strayed admits she became a different person, one who cheated repeatedly on her husband with nameless men, drank heavily and took heroin. Her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail is not one made on a whim with the aim of finding inner peace but more akin to emotional rehabilitation. She’s unprepared, both physically and mentally, for one is one of the toughest hiking routes in the country, and goes through hell on her journey. The views may be breath-taking but there are no quick stops in adorable Italian restaurants or hours spent on the yoga mat.
Strayed may win this battle solely on the fact that her search for understanding doesn’t stand on the shoulders of minorities and glory in the kind of cultural appropriation the more hopeful among us hoped had died off many decades ago. Anyone who isn’t white in Eat Pray Love seems to exist solely to serve Gilbert and her highly privileged needs. The wise guru with his broken English and exoticised poverty lifestyle is the perfect guide for Gilbert to slum it. Her spiritual enlightenment will be gained in a country with vast amounts of poverty, although she conveniently seems to skip over such revelations.
There’s a long history of travel being used, particularly by writers, as a tool to escape one’s oppressions (regardless of how truly stifling they may be) and gain some sort of wider and more free-thinking understanding of the world. Much of this cultural tourism relies on reducing the various cultures and people encountered by the writer to mere tropes, simplified ideas expressed by simple people, void of a wider socio-historical context and chopped into sound-bites that are perfect to post on your Facebook wall. It’s not only reductive; it’s downright offensive. Places like India and Bali do not exist to serve the fleeting desires of those who epitomise First World Problems. Strayed’s hike is firmly rooted in America. The figures she encounters are not magical minorities; they’re fellow hikers who offer a kind word when needed, who push her when she’s beyond pushing herself. It’s an altogether more human experience.
There is pain, both emotional and physical, as Strayed struggles to cope with grief while her toenails fall off (scenes dedicated to her hiking induced injuries don’t shy away from the gruesomeness). Gilbert suffers (you mileage may vary on her definition of it though) and things turn out just fine after a relaxing break. Strayed suffers and her fight for peace is just that – a fight, brutal and painful and disgusting, but dammit if she doesn’t work for that happy ending moment. It’s earned, pure and simple.
The death blow to Gilbert’s novel, on top of everything I’ve discussed, is its glaring lack of authenticity. While she is extremely open about how she funded her journey – she pitched the book to her publishers and used the advance to travel for research – it’s this very revelation that leaves the remainder of the read insufferably fake. Knowing that the book in the reader’s hands is the result of the money made from selling the idea lifts back the curtain and reveals the calculating nature of Eat Pray Love.
Gilbert is a skilled writer, as evidenced by her far superior fiction work, but every moment of her memoir feels decided by committee. The structure is impeccable, the narrative unfolds like a novel and even the ending is the stuff of a good romance novel, but none of it feels real. Eat Pray Love is hardly the first book of its kind to do this, but coupled with its marketing based on its standing as a deeply personal tale, it can’t help but ring hollow. It’s void of rawness, or anything truly dark or ugly. Gilbert never lets herself come across as anything less than polished, even as she claims to be at her lowest. Strayed hides nothing. She has no reason to. After all, her book was written over a decade after she hiked across the PCT. While the narrative is neat and certain moments feel a touch too convenient, Strayed’s low moments truly feel low. There’s nothing glamourous about her shooting up heroin or repeatedly cheating on her husband. The casual reader may not relate to her but they can, and they do, empathise wholeheartedly.
Wild is set to hit cinema screens later this year, with Reese Witherspoon’s Oscar campaign already stealthily underway. The concept of a woman ditching everything to travel solo on a search for something deeper is a tale as old as stories themselves, but Strayed treads a far rougher path than Gilbert’s, and her work is all the better for it.